Personal Development

The Success vs. Failure Dichotomy is a Lie

Your modern definition of success is wrong

Man thinking while looking at his laptop.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

You are wrong about success.

I’ve learned recently that success is not what I thought it was. Not in the New Age “redefine success” mindfulness type of way. But in the ancient definition of the word “success” type of way.

For years I’ve been chasing the very specific modern definition of success (don’t judge me… you’ve done it too). Success looked like fame, popularity, achievement, financial goals, and global impact. I was striving but never achieving. As Type 3 (achiever) on the Enneagram, it was slowly killing me.

So I went down the mindfulness path. And it definitely helped. But until I recently learned of the lie that today’s definition of success is, I wasn’t sure why.

I believed that success was the opposite of failure. But it’s not (no really, it’s not!).

Success is “the good or bad results of an action”

All it takes is a little reframing of the definition of success.

You need to reframe it based on the ancient or archaic definition of the word. This definition is so much more truthful, important, and relevant to the way we look at the world. I wish I had known it sooner.

Success was initially defined as“the positive or negative result of an action”.

Did you see the word negative? I had to re-read the definition out of shock!

It literally means the outcome.

That’s it, that’s all.

For those of you interested in etymology… here’s a dive into the history of the word

In the 16th century (when it was first introduced to the dictionary) success was neither good nor bad… it could be either. The word was purposefully ambiguous.

You couldn’t see the word “success” and assume that there was something worth celebrating. It didn’t mean that they had achieved something great. There was always a clarifier like “ill success” or “glorious success”. Success did not tell you about the goodness or badness of the result. The word success meant there was a result.

It indicates the natural consequence of an action. Success used during war reflected the end or the outcome of a battle regardless of if it was won or lost.

The word also didn’t have any personal value attached to it. You could not be a success because you are not an outcome… you are a human.

It makes sense when you think about the origin of the word.

Success: from Latin successus, from the verb succedere ‘come close after’

Success became the positive result of an action in the 1880s. The term “success story”, which was introduced in French in the early 1900s, further strengthened its positive meaning.

But I digress.

Your definition of failure is also wrong

If the neutral definition of success didn’t rock your world, let’s try this.

“Fail” entered the dictionary in the 1200s and meant to cease to exist or to come to an end.

That’s right… when first added to the dictionary success and failure had very similar meanings. Success meant the end of an action and failure indicated that something no longer existed.

Some more etymology for you

In the 19th century (around the time of the civil war), failure shifted from a consequence of action to a personal attribute. Failure became a character trait. When there was a failure it was because you are a failure.

At that time, success had begun to shift towards meaning the positive outcome of an action. So it began to mean the opposite of failure. And if you think of failure as a character trait… then you think of success as a character trait too.

The changing definition of the word “failure” resulted in the changing definition of “success”. This resulted in the colossal misnomer (and life-sucking failure avoidance) that we have now.

Back to the point.

If we define success as only positive things, it traps us into believing that we have to be always succeeding.

Otherwise, we risk being a failure. It is one or the other — never in between.

The archaic definition of success allows you to see that you don’t need to be incriminated as the cause of your success (or lack thereof). If you understand that there is a proceeding event, followed by an action, followed by a succeeding event, you realize that any action you take makes you successful.

So if “to succeed” is to end an event, and “to fail” means to come to an end, then success and failure are the same things. You can remove the polarization keeping you trapped and limited in the way you see yourself.

There is no success versus failure it’s all just success.

Here are some popular definitions of success and why they are screwing us up

Using other people’s definitions of success (especially if it doesn’t align with the archaic) is a trap. Use the information in this piece, and some personal reflection to create your own definition. I have spent some extra time thinking about this lately… especially now that I know how badly we have screwed it up.

Here are some of my favourite definitions that I have used and that have clouded my ability to feel successful:

Gary Vaynerchuk (famous entrepreneur and internet personality)

Definition: success is how we feel about ourselves.

Implication: success is not defined by outside influences. His definition requires us to look inwards and encourages self-reflection.

Problem: it implies that people with negative self-images aren’t successful. Can I say that I always feel good about myself? NO. But does that mean that I’m not moving forward and completing actions towards my goals? ALSO NO.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (American philosopher and writer)

Definition (quote): to laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.

Implications: you are a perfect human being and have a perfect life.

Problem: no one is perfect. Does that mean you are not taking steps in the right direction? I think not.

Lifehack website (full of bad definitions of success)

Definition: success is having a place to call home (home doesn’t have to be a place, it can also be a person)

Implication: success relies upon external factors.

Problem: you can’t always control your living situation and definitely can’t control other people. If you rely on external things to feel successful then you open yourself up to an am-I-successful-or-not rollercoaster.

Hannah Kuspira c. 2 weeks ago (writer of this article)

Definition: success is how closely I align my actions with my values.

Implications: I don’t define things as “good” or “bad” but as “aligned” or “misaligned.”

Problem: misaligned is just code for “bad” and I get angry when I make “misaligned” choices. I don’t think I’m successful if I make a bad decision… and since I’m human, bad decisions happen often.

Without the archaic definition of success, you are judgmental of yourself and others.

As you start to include the archaic definition in your personal definition you will be less attached to the results of your actions and more attached to taking action towards a desired outcome. So many of us freeze and overanalyze because of the external elements of “good” or “bad”.

Working towards something (no matter the good or bad steps that you take) is a success. Starting your career you feel like you need to know every next step to progress. When you release the result and focus only on taking action (any action), then you can feel pumped that you moved towards your goal. According to the archaic definition, that is a success.

I think if we do this successfully (yep… I’m using the word ironically now) we will be less anxious, less stressed, happier, more effective, and less judgemental of others both at work and at home.

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